Hugging the banks of the slow-flowing Cape Fear River, the hundred-acre farm was a snapshot of what it must have looked like when Scottish settlers came to this part of North Carolina, clearing the trees and planting their first crops in the loamy soil. Deer would have poked their inquisitive noses out of the surrounding woods, and flintlock muskets would have belched smoke to bag the first wild turkeys. Maybe the settlers would have seen Indians across the wide river, or paddling in their war canoes to trade pelts for trinkets, one warrior tribe to another. Wood would have been chopped and sawed, with chisels cutting notches for interlocking pieces. Barns and outbuildings will have been erected by multiple hands working in community. They would have been smaller, perhaps, than the large cypress barn Sergeant Rick Nolan was currently looking at, but the principle was the same. Running his hand along the rough, knotted fence, he pondered for a moment the grim train of fate that had brought him here.
The farm was paradise lost. The cleared fields, the rough pastures and the surrounding woodlands were filled with tents, tarps and strung washing. Flies hovered over the stinking latrine pits. Garbage littered the ground. Rowboats arriving from upriver unloaded stores on the bank, guarded by disheveled cops and unshaven soldiers. Shotguns and batons were wielded to keep back the crowds of people who gathered in the hope of getting food. A sheet hung on the side of the barn, crudely painted lettering proclaiming the presence of FEMA camp 107.
Many such camps existed now, and the Cape Fear River was the highway that linked them all. Since the solar storm fried the grid and put most vehicles out of action, the rivers returned to their traditional role of carrying freight. The only problem came from finding enough freight, and enough boats, to feed the exploding riverbank populations. The nearby city of Fayetteville, its store shelves bare, emptied its citizens toward the camps, and more came from farther afield. People arrived faster than the food, and even Fort Bragg, just fifteen miles to the north-west, struggled to cope. Not since the Civil War had so many military minds been forced to contemplate the age-old problem of how to supply massed armies using just hoof and oar. Except Civil War logisticians never had to contend with the issue of feeding every civilian as well. Plus, they had the advantage of steam power, trains and the telegraph.
Rick walked through the debris of cardboard packaging and empty MRE pouches. Vacant faces stared as he passed by in his dirty, bloodstained cargo pants and body armor – vaguely military, but not quite so. Questing eyes tried to ascertain whether he was an authority they could trust, or somebody they should be avoiding. Paranoia hung heavily over the clustered family groups in their sagging tents. Lone wolves prowled the camp, either because they were looking for something or because there was nothing better to do. Scavengers picked at the trash, hoping to find a crumb that somebody had missed. Patients lay in rows outside the medical tent, triaged by overworked nurses who had to choose between those they could help and those they couldn’t. Anybody with a fever was left to sweat it out. Pamphlets trampled into the dirt warned of the risk of cholera from drinking untreated water. Bodies with sunken eyes and wrinkled hands lay by burial pits, patiently waiting to be interred. Grave diggers leaned on their shovels and hiked their kerchiefs over their noses as they waited for a bedraggled minister to bless the dead.
The inside of the cypress barn was stuffy and rank, with straw laid down on the concrete floor. In the stalls were mothers with young babies, given priority shelter under the high beamed roof. Rick strode past them all until he found Dee.
The last time he’d seen Dee, she was the bubbly blonde with the Meg Ryan hairstyle, joining him and the other guys from his small unit as they fraternally celebrated the end of another tour, taking over the bar of Carlos’s joint in the early hours of the morning. Walt had proudly announced the news of her pregnancy, and got down on his knee to propose to her, theatrically pulling a ring from his pocket. After the tears and the hugs, they toasted the engagement and Walt’s goofy smile as he contemplated fatherhood.
It seemed so long ago.
Dee’s hair was dark at the roots now, and as wild as the hay left in the iron feeding cage at the end of the stall. The baby in her arms was swaddled and sleeping, its little mouth opening and closing as it sucked on an imaginary nipple.
Dee looked up as Rick’s shadow fell across her. Wonder glowed on her features as recognition dawned, and she glanced behind him, looking to see who else had arrived. Her face crumpled when she realized Rick was alone, and the glow faded.
“They said you’d never make it back,” said Dee, her voice breaking. “Now I wish you hadn’t found me, because I know what you’re going to say. I wanted to keep hoping.”
“I’m sorry,” said Rick heavily. He took a pair of metal ID tags from his pocket and held them out to her. “I did everything I could.”
Dee took the tags, tears cutting tracks through the dirt on her cheeks as she ran her thumb over the embossed name and number of her fiancé. “Walt always said your team was the safest place to be. Said you would always lead them out. I wanted to believe you’d bring Walt back.”
Rick didn’t want to correct her on any of those points – didn’t want to admit out loud the mistakes he felt he’d made. “I’m sorry,” he said again.
“How many of the others made it out?” she asked.
“Just me and Scott.”
Each word weighed a hundred pounds, and Rick felt guilty about being able to say them. A bunch of guys now couldn’t. He gazed at the baby, remembering when his own children looked like that, and of the vow he made to keep them protected. He was sure Walt would have made the same.
“We need to get you out of here,” he said.
Dee wiped her face and stared into the distance. “They said I couldn’t get onto the base. Couldn’t verify my ID because the systems were down. Said Major Connors was unavailable. Unable to contact him.”
“We’re not taking you to the base. We’ve got someplace else.”
“I thought they’d take care of me, you know? Serving the flag and all. Thought they’d take care of their own.”
“Forget Connors. You’re as much a part of my team as Walt was. We take care of each other.”
“They wouldn’t let any of us in. There’s a bunch of us here. It’s so messed up.”
Rick kicked at the straw with his boot. “None of that stuff matters now. You’re coming with us.”
The baby stirred, and Dee uncovered her breast to feed it. “Where to?”
Rick glanced around, aware that this conversation wasn’t as private as he would have liked. “Somewhere that isn’t here.”
“Is it far?”
“It’s a work in progress.”
Dee moved the baby into a more comfortable position as it fed. “I can’t really travel now. Maybe in a few months.”
“Might be too late, then.”
“It’s too soon to go. It was tough enough getting here. I don’t have a whole lot of energy, and I’d only slow you down. You’re better off leaving me.”
“I wouldn’t leave a dog here.”
“I’m not your dog, Sergeant Nolan.”
Rick looked at her. Saw the defiant gaze, the protective embrace of the child.
“You know that’s not what I meant.”
In the opposite stall, another mother looked up and threw a glance of admonishment, like she didn’t believe him.
“I’ve got friends here,” said Dee. “We look out for each other. You know how that works, right?”
Dee stroked the baby’s head. “I didn’t mean to patronize you. Just wanted to let you know how things are. I’m grateful you found me and all, and … told me about Walt. I …” Her voice broke again, and she squeezed her eyes tight to stop the tears. “I’m sorry. I’m trying to keep it all together. I knew something like this would happen. I just knew.”
She dissolved into sobs, and the baby, sensing her distress, quit feeding and started crying too. The other mothers gathered around to console her, and Rick stepped back.
“I’ll wait outside,” he said to nobody in particular.
Down by the river, a fight had broken out, and the cops responded with batons, knocking a couple of guys down and pushing back a crowd that threatened to surge toward the supply boxes being carried to the farmhouse. Insults and hand gestures were thrown at the authorities. Around the camp, heads turned lazily toward the noise, like it was a regular occurrence.
Rick waited until the disturbance died down and a simmering indolence returned to the scene. A woman holding a baby came out of the barn.
“She says she wants you to go,” said the woman.
Rick stared at her for a while but kept his thoughts to himself. Nodding once, he walked off.
Scott waited by the camp gate, looking like a hobo who just happened to find some body armor and a rifle. Lack of food left him more rangy and pop-eyed than ever, with a beard so unkempt it would have made a backwoodsman blush. Holding onto two bicycles, he chatted with two soldiers who also looked a little worse for wear. Walking up to him, Rick retrieved his M4 carbine and Glock.
“Is she coming?” asked Scott, turning from the conversation.
Rick shook his head, slinging the carbine and holstering the pistol.
One of the soldiers, a corporal, stepped forward. “Man, I just want to shake your hand. I can’t believe you made it back from Syria.”
Rick glared at him, as if he’d broken some protocol.
“They were just curious,” explained Scott, knowing well the look on Rick’s face. “No harm in telling them.”
“Yeah, man,” said the corporal. “It’s a pretty amazing story.”
“Then just keep it to yourself,” said Rick brusquely. “There’s guys out there who still haven’t made it back, and folks here still waiting for news. I don’t want them hearing rumors and hanging onto false hope.”
“No, sure. I understand. But damn, what a journey. You guys are Delta Force, right? Real hardcore.”
Rick clamped his jaw and Scott hastily intervened. “The corporal here was just telling me how things have been at the camp.”
“Uh, yeah,” said the corporal, glancing from one to the other. “It’s been pretty bad, man. The other day, they were rushing the fences, demanding to know why we were getting fed more than them. I mean, do I look as if I’m getting my three meals a day? The pounds are falling off me, man, but some jerk spread the rumor around that we were withholding rations from them, so there we were, pointing rifles and yelling at them to stand down. Seconds away from a massacre, I tell you. Can’t say I’d be sorry to administer some ballistic therapy to a couple of assholes in particular. They do nothing but bitch and whine, and they’re getting the others riled up. Captain says we’ll be getting some relief soon, but I ain’t seeing none.” The corporal leaned in and lowered his voice. “We’ve had guys skipping out, and I don’t blame them. My folks are in Michigan and I ain’t had word on how they’re doing. If this keeps up … well, you know what I mean.”
Rick certainly did. The system was breaking down, even here, and soon there’d be nothing to put back together, no matter how much people tried. He thought about Dee and contemplated going back one more time to try and persuade her. At least for the sake of the child.
On the other hand, he remembered her defiant look, and suspected he wouldn’t get far with that. He wasn’t good at persuasion. Didn’t have the patience for it, which was why he was a soldier, not a diplomat.
By the camp gate was a wooden outbuilding, the side of which was covered in creased photos, hand drawn pictures and written notes – all pleas to locate missing loved ones, or to let others know they were here. A door opened and an officer who looked more disheveled than Scott stepped out, scratching his groin and dragging a pump-action shotgun.
The corporal groaned. “Looks like Captain Asshat’s woken again. Stays in that shack whenever there’s trouble outside. Says he’s doing vital administration, but I think he’s just jerking off. Started off highly strung and he’s getting flakier every day. If the girl don’t want to go with you, you can take him instead. It’d make my life easier.”
The captain looked around until he fixed indignantly on the group at the gate. “Corporal,” he shouted, “why are those civilians still armed?”
“They’re not civilians, sir,” called back the corporal.
The captain didn’t appear to believe him and strode over, holding the shotgun out in both hands like a baton. “Who are you?” he said, addressing Rick. “Identify yourself.”
Rick glanced back at him. “Sergeant Rick Nolan, 409522002.”
“Why are you out of uniform?”
“Just back from deployment. Sir.”
The captain appeared affronted that Rick didn’t turn around to address him properly. “Where were you stationed?”
Rick rolled his eyes at Scott. “That’s classified.”
“What’s your unit?” blustered the captain.
“That’s classified too. Sir.”
The captain circled around until he was face to face with Rick. “What gives you the right to be out of uniform, soldier?”
Rick didn’t bother making eye contact. “You don’t have to concern yourself with me, Captain. Simply go back to your shack and carry on with your job. Or exercise your wrist, I don’t mind.”
Rick took hold of his bike and made to move off, but the captain jumped in his way.
“I know your type,” said the captain contemptuously. “You think that just because you’re special forces you can disregard the chain of command. Stand to attention when I’m talking to you.”
Rick narrowed his eyes at him. “Out of my way, Captain.”
The captain failed to heed the warning. “That’s an order, soldier. You either show me written confirmation of your assignment or I’ll be forced to arrest you for insubordination and being absent without leave.”
Rick kneed him savagely in the groin. As the captain doubled up, gasping for breath, Rick plucked the shotgun out of his hands and tossed the weapon to the corporal. “You want to be careful there, Captain. You’ll give yourself a hernia.”
The captain collapsed to his knees and Rick mounted his bike and cycled past the bemused soldiers. Scott tipped them a salute and followed behind.
“I’m guessing you’re pissed that Walt’s girlfriend didn’t want to join us,” he said, drawing up alongside.
“I promised Walt I’d check in on his kid. Doesn’t feel right to leave them here.”
“Yeah, I know, but what can you do?”
Nothing, and that was what irked Rick. Autumn leaves drifted down off the trees, carpeting the road now that there was no traffic to disperse it. Three miles up the road they passed the tractor and trailer they’d seen earlier on the way to the camp. The tractor was a little old Ferguson, low tech enough to still be running after the EMP, but it had broken down and the farmer, black oil stains on his hands, was still leaning over the engine, a ratchet wrench dismantling another engine component. Attached to the tow hook was a huge trailer loaded with grain, two soldiers riding shotgun on the top. They looked bored.
If this was the best that could be done, the future did indeed look grim for the half million people waiting in this part of North Carolina alone. In the rest of the state, the population ranked at ten million, a twentyfold increase since the pre-industrial era when people lived in small homesteads.
Never an optimist, even Rick was overwhelmed by the thought that most of them weren’t going to make it through this first winter. It was entirely possible that his own family would be among them.